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Dame on the Move?
Portland finally appears ready to trade Damian Lillard. How might his landing spot impact the Knicks?
Good morning! Training camp opens ONE WEEK FROM TODAY! Giddy the eff up. Today I’m continuing to countdown some Knicks stuff I’m excited for, plus take an expansive look at the Dame trade sweepstakes from New York’s perspective. Let’s get to it…
The Countdown Continues…
As promised on Friday, I’m going to continue counting down the 10 things I’m most excited about for this upcoming season all the way through the opening of camp. Deuce clocked in at No. 10 on Friday, and I’ll be doing two more for each newsletter this week until we get to No. 1 next Monday. On to number nine…
No. 9 - Mitchell Robinson to play 80
A high bar, I know. It’s probably an unrealistic goal in the modern NBA, let alone for someone who has averaged under 60 games a year over his five-year career.
But I have my reasons to root for the highly unlikely.
If Robinson plays 80 games this season, that’ll give him 369 games in a New York uniform, or one more than OAKAAK David Lee. That would leave Carmelo Anthony as the only player to join the franchise since 2000 with more games as a Knick under their belt.
I like David a lot, and have fond memories of his professionalism both on and off the court amidst a sea of disfunction. But there would be something really cool about seeing Robinson surpass Lee after there were so many questions surrounding Mitch when Scott Perry plucked him in the second round. Since then, he’s been everything the organization could have reasonably asked for and then some, all while maintaining one of the most unique and carefree personas in the league.
Oh, and watching him play remains a blast. Last season, he finally achieved the level of consistency we’d been yearning for, providing a modicum of stability on both ends of the court. Between that and the highlight blocks & putbacks, it’s easy to overlook his offensive limitations (at least during the regular season).
Bonus stat: even if he doesn’t play 80, Robinson is 74 offensive rebounds away from 3rd place on that franchise leaderboard, trailing only Charles Oakley and Patrick Ewing.
No. 8 - Knicks / Bucks games
I guess this is the masochistic entry to the list.
When Giannis Antetokounmpo first came into the league, the Knicks actually had a fair bit of success at his expense, winning three out of four in their first season series. Since then, Giannis has played more games against New York than any team outside of his own division. The Bucks’ record in those games: 24 wins and five losses, with six straight victories and counting. In fact, Milwaukee was the only Eastern Conference foe the Knicks didn’t beat last year, although all three games were close.
So yeah, this is probably an odd entry on the list. Again though, I have my reasons.
The Knicks have been connected to a lot of star players over the years. Every time they would play against one ahead of the summer that they were going to be in the running for said star, the player and his team would demolish New York. More than that, whether it was LeBron or KD or whoever, you’d swear they took special delight in the level of humiliation they inflicted.
Now, Giannis will be that guy…except for the first time I can remember, the Knicks are good enough to put up a fight, and maybe even steal a victory or two. Call me crazy, but I’m excited for the possibility they show the Bucks they’re the better team even without the Freak. Throw in their placement in the same mid-season tournament bracket and their Christmas Day affair, and it adds a little extra intrigue to a few of their matchups.
And hey…at 24-5, there’s nowhere to go but up, right?
How a Dame Trade Impacts the Knicks
After a long summer of Dame melodrama (and really, years of him deciding just how many of his 10 toes would be firmly entrenched in Portland), the 7-time All-NBA guard finally appears to be on the move.
Amidst a new swirl of trade rumors, the only question now appears to be where, not if, Lillard is dealt.
As it should be. Jokes aside, the Top-75’er deserves to finish his career somewhere he has a real shot at a ring, a ship that has long since sailed from the Pacific Northwest. For as tiring as his public posturing has become, give Lillard credit for advocating on his own behalf about as well as anyone has done without completely torpedoing their public image. Now we’ll see if he gets his way.
His way, of course, would involve a one-way ticket to South Beach, where he’d instantly form one of the NBA’s best big three alongside Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo. You can argue about whether there are more talented trios, but it’s tough to find three star players who fit as seamlessly with one another as they would.
That’s a scary thought for the rest of the league, and in particular anyone who has designs on getting out of the East in the near future.
The Knicks, after many years wandering blindfolded in the wilderness, are now in that category - maybe not this season, but soon. Of course, their elevation to contender status could get a kick start if they jump ahead of Miami in line and trade for Dame themselves.
The notion of pairing Lillard with Jalen Brunson to form the league’s most lethal scoring backcourt hasn’t gained much traction amongst most fans1, which says as much about how far the Knicks have come in the last few years as it does the wisdom of going all in on an offense-first backcourt.
It’s not like the idea has no merit whatsoever. Lillard has long been at the fringes of the “can he be the best player on a title team” conversation, which is more than we can say about anyone on the current roster. Brunson has already shown the ability to be a worthy co-star alongside the center of a heliocentric offense in Dallas. He’s only gotten better since then, and while Dame is no Luka, maybe New York’s superior supporting cast is enough to make up the difference. In an Eastern Conference that seems relatively open at the moment, you could talk yourself into that team making a Finals. For an organization that has advanced that far just twice in the last 50 years, such a future shouldn’t be discarded without consideration.
Oh, and trading for Lillard themselves also weakens whatever East team is likely to get him instead.
With that preface, the list of reasons not to trade for Lillard is far longer than the one that supports it. For one, he has made his intended destination abundantly clear. While no one thinks Lillard has a Harden-esque level of apathy in him, there are other ways to cause discomfort than dogging it on the court (and going hard into the wee hours). Julius Randle’s agent switch aside, it seems like organizational harmony is one of the best things the Knicks have going for them. Dealing for someone who wants to be elsewhere doesn’t jive with that reality.
The other big issues is what a Dame trade would do to their asset base. Dealing for Lillard might not cost them as much as some other big names coming down the pike, but it will likely eat into their picks and/or young players enough to take them out of the running for the next big name that becomes available.
Which begs the question: is Dame the guy to go all(ish) in on? Here’s where a little NBA history can be of use. Going back to well before the ABA merger, there has been just one conference champion on which two guards 6'2" or shorter played a prominent role2: the 2019 Raptors, with Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet. Notably, Lowry and VanVleet were perennially in the All-Defense conversation, whereas Lillard and Brunson will always be significant liabilities.
Almost as importantly, I wonder how much Dame and Jalen would be able to elevate each other’s games on offense, or whether it would simply be a “your turn, my turn” situation3. There’s a wide spectrum of players between those need the ball to impact winning and your Jrue/Klay types, but Brunson and Lillard both fall somewhere in the middle. Given the defensive issues you’d be signing up for, I’m not sure that’s the wisest path.
Regardless, it seems like much ado about nothing. New York keeps getting mentioned as a team on the fringes of any Dame talk, but not one who has ever seriously gotten involved. The same can’t be said of the Toronto Raptors, who have emerged as perhaps the preeminent Lillard suitor outside of Southern Florida.
Per Marc Stein in his Sunday night newsletter, which followed a few other reports from other outlets:
“The Toronto Raptors have convinced numerous teams around the league that their interest in trading for Lillard is genuine. The uncertainty at this point stems more from gauging Toronto's true willingness to push all the way forward with its Lillard pursuit when it's believed that the All-Star guard, behind the scenes, remains so resistant to the idea of becoming a Raptor.”
The math checks out. Masai Ujiri is many things, but gun-shy isn’t one of them. He’s as comfortable taking a swing for a flight-risk like Kawhi Leonard (albeit at a bargain basement cost) as he is risking his own players leaving for nothing in free agency. The fact that the Raps currently exist in NBA no-man’s land is all the more reason to suspect something is up.
Putting aside the trickle-down effect of Dame going North, such a move could have a far more direct impact on the Knicks. Over the weekend, Yahoo’s Jake Fischer reported on a possible deal between Toronto and Portland, and how many around the league are skeptical that Ujiri would finally move OG Anunoby after so many previous trade flirtations have resulted in cold showers. He then added:
“Moving Anunoby and other compensation for Lillard, though, is a much different prospect than moving him for picks from a team such as Memphis or New York. But what goes back to the Blazers? And if you’re Portland, could the chance of moving Anunoby rekindle conversations with suitors such as the Knicks and add to the greatest possible return Cronin’s staff seeks? Otherwise, maybe Anunoby simply sticks around in Portland.”
The implication is pretty clear, and jives with past reporting on the subject: New York has tried to pry away Anunoby using picks in the past, and if he’s dealt to Portland, they could give it another whirl.
In theory, if OG is the main prize for Lillard, dealing him for picks would easily be the safest route for Blazers GM Joe Cronin. As I detailed early on in the summer, Anunoby is highly likely to test free agency because of hir dirt cheap contract and the rules surrounding extensions. You’ll also recall he recently switched agencies to CAA, which could give the Knicks a leg up if they trade for him before July.
Putting that possibility aside though, tangentially, the Toronto vs Miami discussion for Dame could have an even more significant impact on New York’s long term plans.
It’s no secret that the entire league is watching the developing situation in Milwaukee. That includes Toronto, who has unsurprisingly been mentioned as a team keeping an eye on the two-time MVP. Ujiri tried his best to trade up for Antetokounmpo in the 2013 draft, and the two have developed an off-court relationship over the last decade. Even if Giannis said last summer that he’d never consider playing north of the border, I doubt Ujiri would hesitate making a play.
Does getting Lillard, who would be 34 at the start of the 2024-25 season, make the Raptors more or less appealing for the Greek Freak? And might they have the single best trade piece in the Giannis sweepstakes if they decide to part with 2022 Rookie of the Year Scottie Barnes?
The answer to the second question might depend on Miami, and whether they’d ever consider putting Bam Adebayo on the table. There’s been zero whispers that Riley would ever consider such a thing, but then again, not since Shaq has he had a chance to bring aboard someone of this caliber, and O’Neal was already 32 by the time he joined the Heat.
But even Adebayo might not, by himself, be enough to win a sweepstakes for the 2021 Finals MVP. A team in Milwaukee’s position would be looking for picks as well as blue chip talent. Could that be why Miami is holding the line with Lillard - to ensure that they’d have just enough left in the kitty in case they have a shot at Giannis4? Or are they simply convinced that no other team, including Toronto, will pay the price that Portland is reportedly seeking?
All things considered, I find myself torn from a Knicks perspective. On one hand, even with Jimmy and Dame being a combined 67 years old, I’m convinced that the Heat would be no worse than co-favorites in the East for the next 3-4 years if they add the seven-time All-Star. It already feels like they have New York’s number. Adding Lillard won’t make beating them any easier.
On the other hand, even the great Pat Riley would have a tough time pulling off trades for Dame and Giannis (or Luka for that matter, should this season go terribly awry in Dallas) in consecutive years. It makes me wonder if Lillard could be the booby prize in the grand scheme, and that it would be better for the Knicks if the Heat went off the board as a major threat to acquire the next mega star. If I’m thinking that, I have to believe Riley is too, which is why all this Raptors noise might actually have merit.
We’ll find out soon enough. Where there’s this much smoke, the fire can’t be too far behind. My guess is that Lillard gets dealt this week, and that it’ll wind up being a massive trade involving Portland, Miami and one or two other teams, or Toronto will shock the world and finally part with OG Anunoby (plus other stuff to make the math work), at which point we’ll immediately begin hearing rumors about OG to the Knicks, as Fischer strongly implies.
Camp opens in one week, but the fireworks wait for no man.
With some exceptions, of course. Hi Kevin.
i.e., often closed games together and were prominent parts of the offense.
And yes, this entire paragraph will be just as relevant for the next round of Donovan Mitchell rumors.
Stein also brought up this possibility in his latest report.